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Dreaming of the Sand Pit
It was hot, that I remember. Sweat dripped from my chest about fifteen seconds after I took a shower at base around 0600. I rubbed my hands over my army-cropped hair and pulled my one clean T-shirt over my head. Loud pounding on the door almost made me jump, but hearing Bryan’s voice yelling on the other side just made me move slower. We always gave each other a hard time.
“Richard! Come on, man! Hurry up! Lieutenant’s on my back to get my ass out there for patrol duty.”
I snorted a laugh and untangled my dog tags before I swung the door open. “She’s all yours, Sir,” I said, mocking a bow, “Enjoy your time together.”
I keep looking at the picture, thinking somehow it is going to bring him back. I know it won’t, but pretending is easier than facing the last three years of my life alone. Not all of it was bad, I’ll admit that. This picture, for example, was taken the day we got our combat uniforms. The two of us are standing with our arms slung around each other’s shoulders. We’re giving the thumbs up to the camera, and the bright sunlight is reflecting off our aviators and our M-16’s. But now at home, away from everything, I have nobody to tell that I’m scared half to death. I’m scared of what I don’t know.
The plane I’m flying in is half-filled with returning soldiers. I tuck the picture back into my green and beige camouflage pocket, maneuvering around the buttons and the ISAF badge. International Security Assistance Force. Afghanistan: that’s where I’ve been for the past two years. Now I’m a veteran. Damn, that makes me sound about fifty years older. Growing up, I always thought veterans were old men who worked in gardens and took their grandkids to Sea World because they could get a discount on tickets. Now I’m one. A twenty-five year old veteran who has to re-enter society. Get a job. Take my daughter to daycare. I wonder if Mallory will even remember her daddy. She was conceived the night before I was deployed, and after she was born I talked to Kellie at the hospital in Boston half a world away.
The captain’s voice crackles out of the speaker and the men shuffle around, tucking away pictures of wives and children, laughing some more. Making jokes, punching each other in the arm. We have made it through, and now we can finally accept that. None of us dared hope before, but now it’s sinking in: we are going home in one piece. I start to smile, thinking of Kellie. I wonder if she will have Mallory with her. I lean back in my seat and try to picture Mallory, but I can’t. Kids just grow too damn fast, and I don’t have enough reference points. My last leave was nine months ago, and with only a few scattered photographs and visits over the last two years, most of what I remember is a pregnant belly.
I can feel the plane shudder as the landing gear goes down, then the bump as it hits the ground. I watch the reflection of the plane in the windows of the airport as we pull up to the terminal tunnel. They open the door.
Everyone stand up and gets in the line, which is shrinking quickly. I quickly grab my bag and fall into the last place, walking out the door past the smiling attendant.
“Thank you for flying with us,” she says, barely moving her pasted-on smile. I nod, slinging my pack over my shoulder.
I step into the metal hallway, following behind the ceiling-shaking sound of soldiers practically running to get out of there. As I near the end, I can hear the excitement spilling out of the terminal. A smile creeps onto my face and I start to walk a little faster. The second I come out of the tunnel into the sunshine-filled sea of green and brown, I am almost completely knocked over by a tiny blonde bombshell.
“Richard Walker! You’re not allowed to scare me anymore! I thought you weren’t coming!”
I can’t contain my grin any more. I pick Kellie up and she wraps her legs around my waist as I spin her around, planting one kiss after another on her face. Conversations swirl like dust around us, but we are trapped in our own bubble. I can’t believe it’s her. I can’t stop kissing her; it’s like my lips are glued to hers. Her hands are wrapped around my neck, and she is holding me so tightly, it’s like she’s making up for every hug she’s ever wanted to give me over these past three years. She runs her finger over the scar tissue on my back and I wince: it isn’t fully healed yet.
“Sorry,” she breathes in between kisses.
“It’s okay,” I say, finally letting her down and giving her one last kiss, then wrapping my arms around her shoulders. I ask about Mallory.
“Oh, she’s at home, playing with Grandma,” Kellie says. I can see her eyes start to sparkle as she falls against my chest and finally loses it.
“I just--can’t--believe--you’re here!” she chokes out through sobs way too big for her tiny body. She is crying so much it has already soaked through to my skin. That’s four layers of fabric.
“Kellie...Kellie...shhhh...” I sooth, stroking her hair, “I’m here now. I’m not going anywhere. I’m here.”
She pulls away from my chest and wipes her eyes, reaching out to the puddle on my shoulder. One chuckle escapes through her hiccupy breathing, “Your uniform.”
“You think I care about that?” I ask, “Let’s get home.” I turn around and throw my arm around her shoulder and she wraps her fingers in my hand as we walk together. I look back for a second and see a woman. Tall, brunette, sitting facing the empty terminal gate like she is waiting for someone she knows will never come. A straight line of tears is running down her cheek and she sits completely still as the white-gloved attendants slowly carry a casket up the gate.
Kellie leads me out to the parking garage and unlocks the red land rover. It beeps happily at her as the trunk unlatches and the lights turn on. That car always reminds me of Kellie; I bought it for her as a wedding present right after college when I was going into the army and she was just starting work as an OB. God, that was such a long time ago.
I see the top of a pink car seat as I sling my army bag into the trunk and shut the door, climbing into the passenger seat next to Kellie. I lean over and give her another kiss, and she smiles as she puts on her big, black sunglasses. Her engagement ring sparkles when we get out of the shaded parking garage, and all I can do is stare at her as she feeds her parking ticket into the machine with her credit card.
When we get on the highway she starts talking. “June 13th,” she finally says, “You know how long that date has been circled on my calendar?” She doesn’t wait for me to answer. “Since the day you told me you enlisted. I circled the day you told me your tour would be over, and it looked so freaking far away. I thought we’d never make it.”
“And we did.” I say, looking over at her from the withering road brush, “We made it.”
“Stop, Richard. You’re going to make me cry again,” she said, reaching over to shove my arm. “What I mean is, so much has changed since then. You, me, our family. My having Mallory was just a start. My dad died and you have a hole in your shoulder. I had to put the cat to sleep. And Mallory...Mallory grows so much every day.
“I know one thing that hasn’t changed,” I say, “You. You and your beautiful long blonde hair. I made the guys jealous when I told them how beautiful your hair is. And the way you always smell like lavender, and that bump on your nose, and your hands. Your hands are so long. And I’ll bet, if I asked you, you would still give anything to play the piano in a big orchestra up in New York somewhere.”
She is crying again, but I can’t stop.
There was a few seconds where the only sound was the rubber tires turning on the highway.
Thinking about Mallory draws up again the fear that has been nagging at me since the day she was born. “Do you think she’ll remember me?”
Kellie is silent for a minute. “I don’t know, Richard,” she says, “I really don’t know. I want to say yes, but you’ve been gone so long...”
“I know,” I say, “You don’t need to remind me.”
Kellie reaches into the dashboard cavity that usually holds CDs and grabbed her purple iPhone, handing it to me. “The last picture is her present to you. She took it by herself. I don’t know how she keeps cracking my entry code, but she made me promise to show it to you.”
I smile down at the screen, flipping the silver slider and typing in the code Kellie told me. I click the yellow sunflower icon with my finger, and am immediately greeted by the toothy grin of my daughter. She is standing against the light pine pantry cabinets. Half her hair is pulled back on one side of her head with a blue ponytail holder, and the rest is streaming down around her shoulders. She looks just like Kellie, I can’t believe it. She is wearing purple footy pajamas with green monsters on them and has a gap in between her two front teeth. Her cheeks are so plump and rosy as she smiles at the camera, and her eyes--they are Kellie’s.
We’re in town now, slowing the car down from the momentum of the highway. Kellie presses the radio button, and we are enveloped in an Afghanistan soldier’s report. She quickly presses the second station button, and music replaces the report. I don’t say anything and neither does she, but I can just imagine her listening to that report every day I was gone, dreading the possibility of hearing my name.
It was just starting to get into late afternoon when we pull into the driveway. The lights are on inside, and I can see the top of Mallory’s tiny blond head bobbing up and down in the living room window in front of the blue curtains. Kellie’s mom runs from the kitchen behind hers and picks her up, opening the red front door with one hand as we get out of the car. She walks down the two concrete steps and sets down Mallory, who runs straight to Kellie’s leg and reaches up her arms making indistinguishable “Up!” noises. Kellie’s mom comes over to me.
“Richard,” she says, embracing me tightly, “it’s good to see you back. For good this time, I hope?”
“Definitely for good,” I say, “I’m here for the long haul.”
“I’m so glad,” she says, letting go of me and picking up her purse from the sidewalk by her feet, “We all missed you.”
As her mom drives away, Kellie waves animatedly at the car, looking at Mallory and squeaking out in a voice much higher than her own, “Bye bye, Grandma!” When her mom is out of sight, Kellie turns toward me with Mallory on her hip.
This is the moment I have been anticipating and dreading since the moment I hung up the phone after Mallory was born. Mallory looks vaguely at my for a second, then turns her face into Kellie’s neck and rubs her eyes. I just stand there stunned. She didn’t know who I was. Kellie reaches out her hand and squeezes my fingers. “Hey,” she says, “She’ll...you know. Just give her time.”
“Kellie....” I shake my head and look away from her eyes.
To tell you the truth, I can’t even remember the mission. The time of day. The objective. What Bryan died for. Maybe I just don’t want to. Everything was just blurring together by that time anyway, and there were four other guys on the mission who knew exactly what happened and were able to report. I was the only one wounded, and Bryan was the only one killed. For him to be killed was a wound in my heart.
Kellie’s fingers are tiny and warm as they trace the skin of my back along my scars. She is very careful, outlining the salmon bumps. She finally asks. “What happened?”
I didn’t answer her for a few seconds. I tried to formulate a few different answers in my head, but none of them sounded right. I finally settle on: “When Bryan died.”
She doesn’t say anything. I can tell she’s waiting for me to go on, but I can’t. “The thing is,” I begin, then stop. “The thing is, I just--can’t talk about it.”
She drops her hands to the bed for a second, then scoots closer to me and wraps her arms around my waist. Her fingers brush lightly across my chest as she kisses the back of my shoulder, avoiding the scars. I turn around and put my hand on her leg, weaving my other one through her hair and meeting her mouth as it reaches for mine. She lays her head on a pillow and locks her hands around my neck, pulling me toward her. I feel her soft skin sliding beneath my fingers and this long, blond hair I have waited too long to hold on to this tightly. She is so close to me, this beautiful woman I somehow convinced to be my wife, and all I want to do is make her happy.
Without looking, I reach to find the handle of my nightstand drawer, but when I open it, it is infuriatingly empty.
“There’s one in the bathroom.” Kellie says in between kisses.
“We can’t let it slide this once?”
“After what happened last time you came up with that brilliant plan? Yeah, right.”
I smile, then give her one last long kiss. I walk out of the room and turn on the light in the bathroom, crouching in front oft the sink and searching through the pine cabinet for the condoms.
When I walk back into the room, she’s asleep. I could tell she was exhausted when she picked me up from the airport, and it wasn’t like it was early in the evening, but I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting it. The lights aren’t even off. But if she needs to sleep, let her sleep. God knows she has waited up enough nights alone, and tonight I’ll be right next to her. I walk around the bed and kiss her cheek, then reach behind me and flip the switch.
It was a land mine. I’ve seen plenty of men come out of those with a lost leg, a missing eye, but Bryan paid the ultimate price for that explosion. Most of the guys piled in the sand-colored jeep, they barely got scratched. Bryan was driving, and I was riding in the passenger seat. That I do remember. I remember looking over at him right before. Army-cropped blonde hair covered by a camouflage hat. Aviators. Just like he always wore. Then everything just goes black on me. I don’t remember the explosion, or the screams of the metal jeep being ripped apart. I don’t remember the gun going off. I don’t remember the blood. I don’t remember.
I can’t sleep. In bed next to Kellie, I can hear everything. Her breathing, the crickets, the breeze moving the branches of the huge tree in front. The bone-white moon is shining in through the window. It’s full.
The green digital alarm clock next to me says 3:38 AM; that’s noon in Afghanistan. There’s no hope of sleeping tonight, so I carefully step out of bed, being careful not to bounce the mattress too much. I start to walk out the door of the bedroom, my footsteps being masked for the most part by the fluffy white carpet, when I hear Kellie’s voice say my name. I whip around, expecting to see her sitting upright and talking to me, but she is still asleep.
“Richard...” she says again, but the words are slurred. I can see her eyelids fluttering as she dreams. “Richard...come home...don’t leave...come ho...don’t...stay with us...please...Richard...stay with me...” She turns over in her sleep and doesn’t say anything else. I almost don’t have the nerve to walk out the bedroom door into the hall, where I almost collapsed into the wall, breathing like I’d just sprinted up a mountain. She was sleeping for Christ’s sake.
The mission was unsuccessful. That’s what they told us. Huh. If you asked me, that mission was pretty damn successful. We succeeded in completely destroying an army vehicle and everything inside it. We succeeded in nearly taking off my arm. We succeeded in killing an innocent man. Success is all in the perspective.
The swing is cool when I sit on it. I feel the entire play structure shift with my weight, but I know it won’t fall apart. I remember putting this together with the other neighborhood dads on my first leave when Kellie was six months pregnant and I had two weeks to spend with her. Our neighborhood is a ring of houses with a wide circle of grass in the middle. In the center is this wooden swing set and square sandbox with a broken shovel stuck into the edge. I wrap my arm around the rubber-coated chain and think about Kellie. Had she sat here, in the middle of the park, thinking about me? I can imagine her, still pregnant, sitting on this very swing in the middle of July. October. November. Coming out here to sit in the snow in December, wrapped in her orange ski coat, blowing on her fingers and watching the steam rise up from her lips. I wonder how she felt, starting up at the snow falling from a black sky. Did she wish for me to be there, kissing her, wrapping her in my arms? God knows that’s all I wished for.
Waking up in that army hospital was beyond surreal. Around me it was still green, still brown; but the wires and tubes weren’t deployed bombs lying to the side of an explosion site. The beeping wasn’t the crackily transmissions from a walkie-talkie. The nurses kept giving me morphine, so until I was in rehabilitation, I really don’t remember much of my hospital stay either. The state they had me in, you would have thought all my limbs had been ripped off. The only thing constant in my life at that moment was waking up and seeing the clear bag above my head, dripping pain medication into my body.
When they started to decrease my prescription, my chest was in agony. The bullet-shattered ribs scraped along each other every time I took a breath in, and my collapsed lung--I don’t know what they did to that to make it work again. I really don’t. Everything hurt. Every time I saw one of the nurses, I asked if there was anything they could do about my ribs. Surgery. Anything.
Sitting here on the swing, letting the breeze ruffle through my hair, I pull out the picture of Bryan from my pocket. The two of us, having fun together. We thought we were men, but we were so innocent, so trusting. I wonder if his girlfriend is thinking about him in California, or his parents in Tennessee. I wonder if they have this picture. I wonder if they have ever heard my name.
Looking at my back in the reflection of two mirrors in an army recuperation hospital, I saw my scars for the first time. I was stunned into silence. An angry ring of flesh puckered around a newly healed patch of baby-soft skin, hiding where the bullet from my own army’s gun broke two ribs, went right through my lung and disappeared out the other side, skipping across the sand like a stone on a pond as the jeep blew us in its wake. I couldn’t stop staring at them. Two paths, two tears through my body. Two years I can never get back. Two crisp holes through my life. Kapow. Kapow.